Cakes and Ale is the fourth Somerset Maugham novel I’ve read, and with each book I keep changing my opinion of him. I really liked Of Human Bondage, which was my first book, and then I listened to The Painted Veil, which I loved. So far so good; I thought at this point that I should eventually read everything he wrote. Then I got to The Razor’s Edge, which I didn’t like at all. It felt dull and ponderous. I like idea-driven novels, but in that one, I didn’t care about the ideas and didn’t like how they were presented. With Cakes and Ale, I’m beginning to think Maugham may not be quite as good as I thought. There were interesting aspects of the novel and enjoyable moments — particularly the discussions of authors and writing — but I was hoping to love it and I didn’t.
The novel tells the story of the Driffields — Edward Driffield, a famous author, and two Mrs. Driffields, his first wife, Rosie, and his second, Amy. (My edition has a preface by Maugham that says Edward Driffield is most emphatically not Thomas Hardy, in spite of what anybody says, which meant that I spent the entire novel thinking of him as Thomas Hardy, of course.) It’s narrated by William Ashenden, a writer himself who knew Edward and Rosie at various points in his life. There’s another writer involved as well, Alroy Kear, who is planning on writing a biography of Edward, who in the present tense of the novel has passed away. Alroy approaches the narrator in an effort to gather information about Edward’s life, which sends him off on long reminiscences of his time with the Driffields.
The difference between what the narrator remembers about the Driffields, what he chooses to tell Alroy, and what Alroy will actually put in the biography is the novel’s source of tension. The Driffields — Edward and Rosie — were…not quite proper. The narrator first meets the couple when they move into Blackstable, his hometown. Edward’s father was a bailiff and Rosie had worked as a bar maid, which was a big part of the problem, but they also never quite followed the rules as they were supposed to, and everyone knew it. Eventually Edward’s fame as a writer comes to make up for his social deficiencies, but Rosie was always a bit of a scandal.
The novel is really Rosie’s story in many ways, in part because of the narrator’s fascination with her and her bohemian ways that stayed with him all his life. But there’s also the problem of what to do about the troublesome, sexually-suspect first wife after she is gone and the second wife is trying to establish her husband’s reputation as a respectable, important writer. How should that first wife be portrayed in the biography, and what to do about episodes such as the time the Driffields skipped town with debts and servants left unpaid? And what about Rosie’s sexual history?
It’s all a question of class, of course, about how Alroy and Amy Driffield try to transform Edward from his working-class roots into a solid bourgeois, respectable writer and how the narrator questions and resists them. It’s also about writers and writing. Alroy Kear is the object of much scorn from the narrator; not only is he going to whitewash Edward’s past in what is sure to be a bland biography, but his writing, at least according to the narrator, sounds blandly boring as well:
I could think of no one among my contemporaries who had achieved so considerable a position on so little talent. This, like the wise man’s daily dose of Bemax, might have gone into a heaped-up tablespoon. He was perfectly aware of it, and it must have seemed to him sometimes little short of a miracle that he had been able with it to compose already some thirty books. I cannot but think that he saw the white light of revelation when first he read that Thomas Carlyle is an after-dinner speech had stated that genius was an infinite capacity for taking pains. He pondered the saying. If that was all, he must have told himself, he could be a genius like the rest; and when the excited reviewer of a lady’s paper, writing a notice of one of his works, used the word … he must have sighed with the satisfaction of one who after long hours of toil has completed a cross-word puzzle.
There is no room in Alroy Kear’s world for the exoticism that someone like Rosie Driffield can offer, and so the narrator scorns him.
I was disappointed in part by Rosie as a character; the back cover of my edition promises that she is Maugham’s “greatest heroine,” but she never quite came to life for me. It was the moment when the narrator tells us what she wasn’t a big talker that did it: I had pictured her as vivacious and voluble, and when I tried to picture her being quiet, I couldn’t do it. Then I began to doubt that I had really understood her at all. I’m also not entirely sure I like the narrator. There are times his mildly ironic tone is amusing and I can’t help but agree with his dismissal of Alroy Kear, but there’s something off-putting about the voice, something distancing. I suppose the mildly ironic tone gets a little wearying after a while. I don’t think that we are meant to read the narrator uncritically; as a writer himself, he is not exactly a disinterested observer of the fates of Driffield and Kear, and his detached, judgmental attitude toward his subjects seems self-serving. But critiquing the narrator in this way wasn’t enough to make the book a satisfying read.